Book Review: The Great Tribal Warriors of Bharat: Remembering India’s forgotten tribal revolutionaries

As India marks the 75th anniversary of its Independence, history has been a timely reminder of the cost paid by the previous generations for the said freedom. From Mahatma Gandhi to BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, many names have contributed to the cause of independence. However, a voice that often gets lost in the din is that of India’s adivasi or tribal population. Chances are that most of us have never heard of names like Jaipal Singh Munda, Budhu Bhagat, or Tilka Manjhi. They are among the tribal leaders revered for fighting a pitched battle against the British.

The Great Tribal Warriors of Bharat is a homage to these unsung heroes and recounts how they mounted a tough attack against the Britons during different periods of colonial rule. Co-authored by Tuhin A Sinha and Ambalika, the 182-page book has been published by Rupa Publications and has 17 chapters, each dedicated to a different leader. 

A necessary lesson in history 

The book makes an honest effort to showcase not just the contributions of these tribal heroes but also the challenges they overcame to defeat the enemy. It comes at a time when history books have come under criticism for their narrow reflection of India’s history. To cite Sinha’s own experience as mentioned in the book, the Gen Z or millennials might not have heard these names barring a locality or a street named after legends. 

The book also brings to light the lack of efforts on the part of successive administrations in preserving history. Take the example of the first chapter that’s dedicated to Santhal adivasi leader Tilka Manjhi from Bhagalpur in erstwhile Bihar and how he led a rebellion against the British administration with a skillful army of tribals in the 1780s. Manjhi was subsequently executed by the British for shooting Bhagalpur collector Augustus Cleveland with an arrow. 

Citing the findings of Sir John Houlton ICS, the authors point out an apparent discrepancy in written records. They claim that there weren’t any references to Tilka Manjhi until a few years ago. This was in contrast to the case of Cleveland or ‘Chilmil Saheb’ – as he was fondly referred to by the locals – whose time in India has been well documented. If the authors are to be believed, historical records for long mentioned that Cleveland died of the complications stemming from harsh weather conditions and work-related stress.

Image Credit: Rupa

An ode to the brave women of India

Our history books are replete with the names of women leaders like Sarojini Naidu and Bhikaji Cama who took on the British with unmatched courage and vigor. However, these books often fail to mention the contributions of women tribal leaders like Helen Lepcha. Hailing from Kurseong in Sikkim, Lepcha was in school when she heard about Gandhi and was deeply influenced. She left school to join the freedom struggle and never looked back. She went on to join the Non-Cooperation movement and fought against the exploitation of tribal laborers by the British. 

The Great Tribal Warriors of Bharat is a reminder why authors and historians should avoid such stereotyping while writing about Indian revolutionaries and opt for a more embracing and inclusive approach. One of the lesser-known stories about Lepcha and one that is mentioned in the book as well is that she helped Netaji Subhas ChandraBose flee India to Kabul by dressing up as ‘pathan’ while he was under house arrest in Kurseong.

The book also mentions a riveting account of another woman tribal leader Dashriben Chaudhury, who hailed from Gujarat. Her tryst with the freedom struggle started when she was just 12. Together with her friends, Dashriben would go from village to village recounting stories of British atrocities.

The book entails an intriguing account of her grit. A young Dashriben and her friends would picket liquor shops and damage toddy palm trees to mark their protest against the British government’s policy of prohibiting tribals from making and selling toddy while encouraging its consumption. When she was 14, she was arrested for participating in the satyagraha movement and sent to jail for a year where she met Kasturba Gandhi. What follows is a heartwarming tale of the friendship that blossomed between the two. While Kasturba served as an embodiment of courage to Dashriben, the latter taught the elderly women to read and write. She also participated in the Quit India movement and spent her life advocating tribal rights and working for their education.

The last word

The names mentioned in the book are by no means exhaustive and there’s a rich historical tribal heritage just waiting to be explored. The authors must be lauded for taking up the task of giving these forgotten heroes their due share of respect.

The book features an insightful foreword by Union Minister of Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju. The foreword sets the mood for the book by shedding light on the need for the youth of the country to know about these oft-forgotten heroes whose contributions have galvanized India’s efforts to emerge as a global leader. 

The book isn’t Sinha’s first and he has a total of 14 books to his credit. He is also a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his last book ‘The Legend of Birsa Munda’ – which he co-wrote with Ankita Verma – is based on the contribution of tribal leader Birsa Munda to the country’s freedom struggle.

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